In N.Y., Menswear Captures The Mood

Robin Givhan says, "This is not a season that calls for egghead fashion. The times cry out for salt-of-the-earth clothes."
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 17, 2009; Page C01

NEW YORK, Feb. 16 -- As the fall 2009 collections are unveiled here this week, much of the menswear has an aesthetic advantage over womenswear in these depressing and unnerving economic times. By its nature, the menswear industry is averse to radical and distressing change. It does not believe in shocking its customers with high-concept clothes that in the common vernacular would be referred to as costumes. Menswear designers often talk about their customers as if they are skittish wild horses, ready to bolt at the slightest hint of anything loud, aggressive or merely unexpected.

So these designers fret about the details -- things such as back vents and pleats and whether their trousers should have a tab waistband or not. Rolling up or cinching the hem of a pair of trousers is considered a stylistic risk, one that was favored by Patrik Ervell in his Saturday afternoon show. They moon over new fabric technology. And they ponder synonyms for gray, black and navy. At Calvin Klein, menswear designer Italo Zucchelli prefers eccentric words such as zinc, onyx and marine.

Menswear designers typically do not push or shove their customers into new silhouettes. And frankly, no one really needs the added indignity of being manhandled right now. Menswear makers don't aim to dazzle as much as to woo. They want a long-term relationship built on trust. It sounds like a winning strategy for fashion in general during these turbulent times.

(There are, of course, a handful of designers who make it their business to be provocative, but the most notable -- Thom Browne, with his reputation for putting men in crinolines without flinching -- already unveiled his menswear line in Florence last month and was absent from the runway here.)

It was just as well. In this town, where seemingly nonstop television ads run begging the governor not to cut health care and where subway service reductions are in the offing even as fare increases are looming, this is not a season that calls for egghead fashion. Instead, the times cry out for salt-of-the-earth clothes that a man can depend on. Clothes that are perfect for a job interview. Or those that make a man still lucky enough to be salaried look wise, confident and indispensable. Weekend wear should be ideal for cocooning -- comfortable and broken in -- without making a fellow look like he's wearing some sort of tragic homeless chic. There is nothing enticing or admirable about fashion that would try to romanticize poverty.

Right about now, clothes need integrity. But how do you bring that to an industry known for its voluminous output of a product that all too often is fey and pretentious? When designers start talking about how something is handmade and artisanal and meant to last, it's hard not to be intrigued. But then they mention that, oh by the way the jacket or the coat is $4,000, a sane man pretty much stops listening.

But the designer Stefan Miljanic may be able to keep his attention. His collection, called Gilded Age, bridges the divide between ostentatious finery and earnest clothes. The line, which he presented as a tableau vivant Thursday evening, was inspired by images of students on Harvard's campus in 1969 and 1970. He didn't focus on the Ivy League collegiate uniform in all of its moneyed, preppy appeal. Instead he focused on the way working-class style intersected with the polish of the Boston Brahmin class. The collection merges plaid farm shirts with charcoal city suits. And it mixes plaid hunting jackets with the protest uniform of bleached and shredded jeans. The clothes speak to change and upheaval. And they draw their energy from a time when people were debating the legitimacy of everything they once had assumed to be correct.

The best fashion speaks to its time. Flashy, exuberantly priced Panerai watches, for instance, spoke to the irrational buoyancy in the stock market, the housing sector and the tech world. But sometimes fashion reflects a mood or underscores what is missing rather than highlighting what is there. Thursday evening, designer John Bartlett presented a straightforward, no-gimmicks, beautiful collection of slim trousers, colliding stripes and plaids, gentlemanly blazers and refined chinos. It was one of his best collections in recent memory. He is a master of manly menswear. In the past, he has exaggerated masculinity until it became cartoonish. At times, it was overly soaked in testosterone: menswear on steroids featuring overly muscled models swaggering down a runway in a manner that was half threatening and half porn. This time, Bartlett managed the delicate balance of man as heroic, gallant and even nurturing.

The clothes lent the models an air of reliability and stability. The collection did not regress to some retro "Mad Men" vision of men as hunters, protectors and sauced womanizers, but it called to mind a man who looks in control -- of nature, the office, the home. In uncertain times, it can be jolting to see guys walking around like dandies, dolled up with feathers and other frippery. And now is not the time for bullies either. What is called for is reassurance.

That can come in a multitude of ways. It could be the old-time charm of plaid overcoats and cashmere, cable-knit grandpa cardigans from Loden Dager, a design collective. The simplicity of Loden Dager designs, which were presented Saturday night, make them utterly familiar but with just enough tweaking to convince customers that no, they really don't have a pair of cotton pants just like that.

Sometimes it's nice to see a man in a youthful windbreaker, a fleece-lined bomber jacket or a softly tailored blazer that makes him look amiable and non-threatening. That's how designer Patrik Ervell, who presented his collection Saturday afternoon, sees men dressed this fall. But his vision would be even more reassuring if his models weren't so thin and frail that they left many in the audience wondering if these young men had been lured from an overcrowded job fair with the promise of a few hours of work and a crust of bread in payment. Are there men out there who want the physique of an emaciated 12-year-old? Heaven help them. And wasn't it, in part, the fact that so many men were acting like greedy and selfish preteens who'd gotten hold of their parents' credit cards that got the country into this financial mess in the first place? Surely the age of the boy-man has come to an end.

The time is right for a man in Calvin Klein's "gotham reflective two-button suit." He is more fulfilled than his 1950s counterpart who was dressed in gray flannel. The clothes that Calvin Klein designer Italo Zucchelli put on the runway Sunday afternoon gave the models a sleek, authoritative appearance. They looked unencumbered, virtually aerodynamic in their monochromatic attire. The colors were drawn from the hues of the city. It was an uncompromisingly urban collection. These clothes were proudly, exuberantly about business, about making money and taking control.

The suits did not evoke images of masters of the universe or fat cats. To describe any man in those terms today would be an insult. Zucchelli's lean and spare silhouettes evoked youthful vigor without disconcerting immaturity. The unadorned clothes were serious without being depressing. And his use of novel fabric technology, in which some jackets glimmered like a moonlit sky and others looked to be molded out of foam, spoke of innovation and daring.

Zucchelli made the subtle and optimistic case that, at the very least, the uniform of capitalism -- of bankers, Wall Streeters and corporate titans -- still has a future.

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